Beauty uncontained

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? I’m not sure I want to eat them: I could just sit and stare at them for hours on end, marvelling at their cream-and-maroon speckled loveliness. Hard to believe something so perfect could come from my allotment.

They are of course borlotti beans. I’ve grown them this year for the first time and I’ve been harvesting them for a month or so now. And with that statement comes a little confession: I’ve never eaten borlotti beans, no idea whether or not I like the taste, don’t have any particular recipes I’m dying to try them in. And you know what, I’m not sure I’m even bothered about eating them.

You see, I only grew them because I think they look really pretty. There. I’ve said it. As a regular reader of this blog you may have fallen for the misconception that I am an uber-professional gardener, channeling nature’s power to produce previously unseen quantities of hihg class fruit and vegetable for domestic consumption.

But no. I am in fact a shabbily amateurish and staggeringly shallow incompetent. Not only that, but I grow perfectly edible vegetables simply because I like to sit and look at them.

Still, at least if you’re going to do it you may as well do it in style. And you don’t get more stylish than the borlotti. These glamorous Italians just ooze class, from the gently dappled pods that house the beans in their pearl-coloured beds to the beans themselves, little orbs of richly hued beauty. Sitting in their storage jar on my shelf they look more like a jar of sweets in a Victorian shop that a tub of dried vegetables.

And it gets better than that. Another big attraction of the borlotti is the ease of growing: once they’re up and running you don’t have to worry about picking them at just the right time. As long as you’re happy to store them for use as dried beans and not eat them fresh you can just leave them on the plant while it fades and dies. This has the happy side effect of effectively drying the beans for you. A couple of days somewhere dry indoors and the crisp papery pods are ready to be relieved of their bounty for storage.

But enough of the growing tips. If you’ll excuse me there’s a  jar in my kitchen that needs someone to sit and stare adoringly at it.

On the ipod while in a state of bliss: Babybird / You’re gorgeous. Oh you are, you lovely little beans, you are

Work, work, work

Right, that’s it. Seeds planted in Spring? Check. Watered and nurtured in early Summer? Check. Consumed with smug satisfaction from mid Summer onwards? Check. Vegetables die, are cleared away, feet put up for well-earned Winter rest? Che….huh?

Bloody hell, it never stops, does it? Just when I was thinking that my year’s work was done and I could take it easy for a bit, the seed and bulb catalogues start dropping through the letterbox, planning for next season needs to start. And some things need planting already!

It seems odd to write about it while we’re in the middle of harvest season, but already the seed packets are piling up in the greenhouse and I am drooling about next year’s new and improved vegetable growing. And as you can see from the pic, some of the garlic has already been planted.

This should give the bulbs a head start and ensure that they are even plumper even earlier next season. It didn’t quite work out that way this year, with all my winter-planted garlic producing marble-sized bulbs, many of which were split or mouldy.

I’m loath to name and shame the supplier just in case – I know, this is crazy talk – I did something wrong at my end, but this year the garlic comes from Seeds of Italy and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, both of which have served me well in the past.

But what I am doing wasting time telling you about it? I should be in the garden planting…

On the ipod while working hard: The Cure / Boys don’t cry. Obviously not. But surely every now and then they sniffle a little bit? All that weeding, planting, watering – it’s just a little overwhelming sometimes. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Enormous!

One of the great things about having an allotment is that it gives me extra room to grow things that take up loads of space. Sqaush are a prime example of this: they can spread out to cover 4-5m sq of soil if you’re not careful, and that’s just not practical in most city gardens.

So top of my list on getting the allotment were squash plants. I stuck in some seeds at the start of the summer, and then later on saw some unknown squash plants at the kids’ school summer fair.

Unable to resist, I spent the last of the ice cream money on a couple of plants. Ignoring the plaintive wailing I promised the boys untold delights as the mysterious plant bore its fruit.

This is how the adventure began. An adventure that led to my growing the biggest squash you have ever seen. Me! On my humble allotment!

I planted the innocent-looking thing, unaware of the joy it would bring, and watered it. Over the next few weeks I fed it regularly, acknowledging that hoary old adage that you can never overfeed a squash. It started to grow. Vigorously.

After a month or two some of the flowers started forming fruits. I started to get excited. Going down to the plot at weekends, I was able to track the progress. Imagine my surprise when, in just a week or two, the fruits grew to the size of small pumpkins! What variety had I bought? How big would they get?

They kept on growing. Within a month of appearing, the squash were now the size of beachballs. Neighbouring plot holders were starting to comment admiringly. I kept on feeding. They kept growing.

Late August and things were getting ridiculous. By now I had given up feeding the plants, but they carried on undeterred. I came back from a couple of weeks’ holiday to find awe-struck allotmenteers pointing at my plot. The squash were now over 1m tall and wide and starting to cast a shade on next door’s plot. Stories abounded of how the geriatric vegetable thief in the corner plot had put his back out trying to steal one. People began to ask my advice on all sorts of growing matters. The local paper left me messages about a possible feature.

And still they grew! Now they were almost head high. I was beginning to wonder how long it would take to eat them, and also how I might be able to fit them into a saucepan. Or the kitchen, for that matter.

Eventually I decided enough was enough. Borrowing an axe from a friend I spent an hour hacking through the stalks to stop the growing once and for all. I won’t bore you with the details of how I moved them off the plot, but before cooking them I placed them on the clean white sheet you see above to capture their glory on film.

But then it occured to me. Yes, they look beautiful in the photo above, but without any sense of perspective you can’t really appreciate their size. However, as luck would have it, just before I moved them a few friends were passing my plot. Members of the Beckenham Allotment Historical Re-enactment Society, they were on their way to a re-enactment of the Siege of Carthage.

I asked them to pose for a photo next to the smallest of the squashes. They kindly obliged. You can see the results in the pic below, which gives some idea of the actual size of the squashes:

Two gentlemen in fancy dress posing alongside quite a large squash

On the ipod while stirring a bathtub of squash soup: Kate Nash / Pumpkin Song. Nothing to do with pumpkins as far as I can tell from the lyrics, but a nice song.

Sun? Oven? What's the difference?

Isn’t it just the way? You wait all winter for a nice home-grown tomato and then wouldn’t you just know it? A couple of hundred come along all at once!

The greenhouse is currently the horticultural equivalent of a sweatshop, packed full of tomato plants all pumping out fruits at an obscene rate of knots. Far too many tomatoes for us to eat so we’re struggling to stay on top of things. Nice problem to have, so try not to feel too sorry for me as I moan.

I was idly making pizzas the other evening when a solution presented itself. Adding the various toppings, I opened the jar and spooned out a few leathery sun-dried tomatoes onto the dough. Ah hah!

Home-made sun-dried tomatoes ticks a lot of boxes – a good way to use up the tomatoes, should last for ages, we eat loads of them and they cost a small fortune to buy in the shops. Off we go, then.

Now I should confess, what follows is actually a way to make oven-dried tomatoes. As you may have twigged by now, South London is not exactly Mediterranean, and drying the tomatoes in the glorious sunlight would take rather a long time.

Nevertheless, the end result is the same, and it’s dead easy. Chop your tomatoes in half and put them on an oven tray. Sprinkle with salt and olive oil and then put them in the oven. That’s it.

Unless you’re planning on using the oven for something else in the near future. You see, it does take rather a long time to make these babies. You want the oven nice and low, about 50c, and you need to leave the tomatoes in for about ten hours. Which rather limits your options if you want to cook anything else, and you have to remember to start cooking these at the right time – late evening or early morning, I guess.

And I suppose the cost of leaving your oven on for ten hours would probably goes some way towards a few jars of shop-bought tomatoes.

But the good news: they taste amazing! For starters they are much brighter red then the wrinkly prunes you pull out of shop-bought jars, and you can also stop cooking them when you want. I took the ones in the pic out when they were still nice and juicy and before they dried out too much.

Once you’ve cooked them, stick them in a sterilised jar with a few cloves of garlic and some thyme. Cover them in extra virgin olive oil and they should keep for six months.

One thing to watch for: if you put the jar in the fridge then the olive oil will probably turn a bit cloudy as its temperature drops. This will have the unfortunate effect of looking like your tomatoes have gone mouldy. They haven’t – just take the jar out of the fridge, or indeed just ignore the cloudiness and carry on regardless.

Enjoy!

On the (brand new!) ipod while preserving: nothing. Still trying to figure out how to get the bugger set up properly.

Free mussels!

A slight diversion for this week’s post: not vegetable or fruit-related, but a recipe for something I harvested and ate on holiday.

You can probably tell from the above pic where this one’s going. Still, let me fill you in on the detail. During a couple of weeks spent loafing around on the beaches of Southern Brittany I missed my little allotment (the novelty of quality time with the family Drooling was wearing off by this stage).

I began to look around for things to pick and eat. A field full of corn next to the campsite looked appealing, but also sadly illegal. However, happenstance, as so often, intevened.

“Daddy, what are these things on the rocks?”

“Go away. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“But Daddy, they look very silly, what are they?”

“Look, this beer isn’t going to drink itself. I am on holiday you know.”

Pause. Slight sound as pair of six-year-old shoulders sag imperceptibly.

“Mummy, what are these things on the rocks?”

“Why honey, they are mussels.”

Pause. Slight sound as beer bottle falls into the soft white sand.

“Mussels, eh? Kids, grad a bucket. You’re coming with me.”

And so began the culinary adventure. The boys and I set off into the sea with buckets to look for mussels. The rocks were covered in them, albeit there were some pretty tiddly specimens hanging around.

After about 30 minutes we managed to prise 3 bucketfuls of decent-sized mussels off the rocks and bring them back to shore. At this stage they were covered in barnacles. Following a lengthy discussion with fellow holidaymakers it was decided that barnacles might adversely affect the flavour: they had to come off.

This wasn’t quite such a tedious task as might be thought. Although the boys did look a little bored after a few hours. Using whelk shells we sat happily in the sand, scraping off the barnacles and plopping the now-shiny purpley-black mussels into buckets of fresh sea water.

At the same time I tugged off the beards – the hairy tufts that stick out of the mussel’s shell – by pulling them towards the hinge of the shell.

The mussels were now clean. I popped them back in the water and took them back to the caravan.

Now at this stage I msut confess a little trepidation. I’d never caught or prepared mussels before, and shellfish in general generate a fair few scare stories, not to mention alimentary disasters. My head was telling me that these mussels were fine, freshly harvested from clean sea water, what could go wrong? But still…

Anyway, on to the recipe. A simple Moules Mariniere: cook a chopped onion and some garlic in a big saucepan. Add a glass of white wine and a glass of cream. Stir and then tip in all the mussels that have closed shells (very important, that bit – if the shells are open, the mussels are dead. Not good.).

Put the lid on. The heat and steam will make the mussels open up, whereupon the wine and cream will cook them deliciously. Give it 5-10 minutes. Toss in a load of freshly chopped parsley.

At this stage it will look amazing. All that is needed is a little Dutch courage and a large baguette, and you’re off! (oh, and only eat the ones that have opened!)

Needless to say, the mussels didn’t kill me. They tasted delicious and no after-effects whatsoever. Add to that the smug warm glow of catching (well, catching is maybe a rather grand word for something that sits motionless on a rock) them ourselves, and you have a very nice meal indeed.

I should probably add some disclaimer that you might want to read a more professional guide on how to eat mussels before attempting to do the same thing yourself. But hey, still alive…

On the radio while cooking: Je Ne Regrette Rien / Edith Piaf. Hear, hear!

Aubergines. What do you mean, "aubergines?!?!?"

First of all, an apology: I’ve been loafing around on foreign beaches for a few weeks and have consequently been a little lax in updating the blog. Thank you, however, to those of you who have emailed – in your thousands! – expressing concern for the silence and frustration at the lack of epicurean bons mots to help you through the humdrum existence of your lives.

Panic over. I am back!

And what better way to celebrate than with a cake? Chocolate, of course. So without further ado, and while Mrs Drooling struggles to load four suitcases of lightly soiled clothes into the dishwasher, to the kitchen!

Unfortunately post-holiday supplies have not been replenished, and there is no butter in the fridge. And no sugar in the cupboard. Could cause a few problems if we are to rustle up a decent cake.

In all times of crisis you could do worse than look in the garden for inspiration, so (rather than go to the corner shop) I pop down to the vegetable patch. And there we stumble upon the perfect solution. How could I have been so stupid! Of course! We don’t need sugar or butter to bake a cake. The greenhouse is full of aubergines!

Yes!

(And for US readers, yup, aubergines really are eggplants, and not some weird limey name for butter-and-sugar trees).

I realise that at this stage you might be thinking that all that French sun has affected Drooling in more ways than just the deep mahogany tan, but bear with me here.

Before we set off I bought a rather odd cookbook, Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache, after reading a review in The Guardian. The basic premise is you can bake most sweet things by replacing the butter, and to some extent the sugar, with vegetables. The natural sugars and other stuff in the veggies will do the same job, but will be much better for you: think carrot cake.

I should say at this point that the book is written in eye-wateringly winsome prose, but a few recipes in and I can confirm that the principles are sound. The above cake was kncoked up using aubergines and honey instead of lardy butter and sugar. And it tasted delicious!

The cake comes out of the over looking remarkably glossy – not the dull  matt brown of your average sponge – and it’s very moist. Harry Eastwood notes that there’s no point in sticking a skewer in your cake to check if it’s done, as the vegetable intrusion means you get a moist end product, and she’s not wrong.

But this doesn’t give you a soggy, leaden lump. Instead you’re left with something more like the lovechild of a Victoria sponge and a Chocolate Mousse. Hard to resist, huh?

Anyway, without further ado here’s the recipe:

Chocolate Heartache Cake

Ingredients

400g aubergines

300 dark chocolate

50g cocoa powder

60g ground almonds

3 eggs

200g runny honey

2tsp baking pwoder

1/2 tsp salt

Cook the aubgerines in a covered bowl in the microwave for 8 mins. Drain and skin them and puree the squishy stuff. Add the chocolate to the warm aubergine and drool while it melts. Whisk everything else up in a different bowl. Add the chocolate-and-aubergine mixture to this and mix well.

Pour it all into a 23cm diameter cake tin (ideally loose-bottomed) and bake in the oven (180c / 350f / gas mark 4) for 30 minutes. Let it cool in the tin for 15 mins and then stick it on a cake rack. Eat.

On the ipod while cooking: Nothing. It broke while on holiday. Boo hoo.

The future's bright!

Picture the scene: Buckingham Palace around sixty years ago. Early evening, the sun sets over The Mall

HRH Queen Elizabeth: “Oh Philip! Oh Philip! I’m just heading off to bed! And I’m feeling a bit lonely…..”

Prince Philip: “Damn it gel, I’m trying to read this month’s Horse and Hound. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

HRH: “Oh come on Philly willy, you know you want to!”

Prince P: “Really Liz, I’m just not in the mood.”

HRH: (sternly) “Philip, this throne won’t succeed itself you know. If we want an heir then we’re going to have put in the hard work. Now put down that magazine and come upstairs now. I command it.”

Succession plannning, we would all agree, is important. And at Drooling Towers such things are taken just as seriously as in slightly more exalted places.

It’s particularly important this time of year, when the first crops have been pulled up and eaten, there are large empty spaces in the vegetable patch and still plenty of growing months left in the year.

Traditionally yours truly has been a little slapdash when it comes to thinking ahead, and I’ve only started thinking about how to fill the gaps once they have appeared, by which time it’s a little late.

However this year I was a bit more organised, and planted swede, fennel and cavolo nero seeds in trays about a month before the beds became free. This gave me a good headstart and, as you can see from the above, the seedlings were about 6in tall by the time they were transplanted into their new homes. Success!

Don’t, however, worry about old Drooling getting a bit too smug: the seedlings in the pic are the second batch – the first were eaten by slugs in one night flat…

On the ipod while planning for the future: The Housemartins / Me and the farmer. I tell you, if the farmer has this much trouble with slugs he won;t be in business for long.

In a far-flung corner of the galaxy a blackberry-coloured volcano destroys a planet seemingly made of delicious-looking crumble

When I’m not gardening I like to get out my telescope and scan the stars, marvelling at the wonder of the universe we live in.

I was idly passing the time doing just this the other night when – imagine my surprise – I stumbled across a star I hadn’t noticed before, winking at me in a distant corner of the sky!

A twiddle of the relevant dials on the telescope sharpened the focus, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! There, staring at me down the lens, was another planet! And not just any planet, a planet with mountains and hills so beautiful they looked as if they were made of crumbs of sugar, flour and butter!

But it gets even more amazing! The surface of the planet was covered in adorable little green aliens, running around playing games and generally having lots of alien fun. I marvelled at this joyous scene, but as I watched transfixed a terrible thing started to happen.

The crumbly surface started to tremble and shake. Great cracks appeared, as what looked like a volcano erupted plumes of hot lava across the planet’s surface. This lava was like none I had ever seen before – not red, but a dark purple. Blackberry-coloured, if you will.

At this stage I snapped out of my reverie and reached for the camera. Unfortunately for interplanetary relations, the little green aliens had fled for safety, no doubt fearing for their lives, so I didn’t get a picture of them. I did however capture the apocalyptic landscape, the carnage memorialised here for all to see.

On a completely unrelated topic, here is the recipe for the Blackberry and Apply crumble we’ve been eating chez Drooling this week:
Blackberry and Apple Crumble

For the filling:

5 Bramley / cooking apples, cored, peeled and sliced

400g blackberries

pinch of cinnamon

300g sugar

For the crumble topping:

2 parts flour

1 part butter

1 part sugar

Gently fry the apples in a little butter for a few minutes. Add the cinnamon, sugar and blackberries and cook until cooked through. Pour into a ove-proof dish. To make the topping, whizz up the three ingredients together and then spoon over the fruity filling. Cook at about 200c until it looks golden brown on top (about 30 mins).

(For quantities of topping, go with however much you want, depending on whether you want a thick or thin topping. About 200g flour generally works well with this amount of filling)

Footnote: for US readers of the blog, the crumble is the British version of a cobbler. Go on, give it a whirl!

On the ipod while cooking: David Bowie / Space Oddity. Ground Control, you’re not going to believe what I’ve just taken a photo of….

Mmmmmmmm!

You may remember back in the spring when I bought a bunch of balckberry plants off the internet and stuck them in the ground at the allotment, rhapsodising about the heavy cropping that would ensue in just a few months?

Well, have a look at the photo of my breakfast at the top of this post: salivate as you watch that thick, glossy blackberry jam melt over the piping hot, fresh-baked granary toast! Marvel at how rich nature’s bounty is! Perhaps even feel a little jealous as you sigh “Damn you Drooling, you live a life I can only dream of!”

Next, guess what? There’s absolutely no connection between the two paragraphs above.

Yes, I’m afraid that once again Mother Nature has flipped me the finger. I spent hours comparing tasting notes for a myriad different blackberry varieties before carefully making my choice – two heritage varieties, chosen specifically for their rich flavour and plump berries.

Said bushes were planted and have had hours of attention lavished on them. They look quite happy and have repaid me by producing – oooh – at least 7 or 8 berries so far. And that rich flavour? Best described as “vinegary, with subtle undertones of bleach”.

Not a great triumph. However, just next to the carefully tended blackberry bed is a large, heavily shaded patch of my plot which I have left fallow. I strimmed it back in the spring and then pretty much ignored it, casting a blind eye while head-high brambles shot up.

“Next year’s project”, I thought. And then the brambles all started flowering, and before I knew it I have so far harvested just over 3 kilos of gorgeous-tasting blackberries.

Go figure.

It would be churlish to complain, and I shall try to ignore the lesson screaming to be learnt here: “just ignore everything and you’ll be much better off. ” I’m not sure the rest of the patch would benefit from quite such a shabby approach to vegetable husbandry.

For the time being though, who’s complaining?

Blackberry jam

Equal parts blackberries and jam / preserving sugar

1 lemon

Put the blackberries and the sugar in a saucepan with the juice of the lemon. Bring to a gentle boil. Stir regularly. Not sure if that makes any difference but it is wonderfully soothing to do so.

When the jam has set stick it in jars. To test if it has set, pop a saucer in the fridge. Drip a spoonful of jam onto it and wait a few seconds. Push the jam with your finger and if it’s ready you’ll see some wrinkles on the jam.

Before sticking the jam into the jars I boil them for a few minutes in a big saucepan.

Not sure that’s the most scientific or effective way of making jam, but it tastes delicious and I’m still strong enough to knock out this post after a couple of weeks of eating it…

On the ipod while being a domestic goddess: The Jam / Greatest Hits. You didn’t think I was going to miss that opportunity did you?

Grubs up!

The quest for Drooling self sufficiency goes on. Fearlessly we move towards a nirvana, a perfect world in which the clan Drooling will be dependent on NO-ONE for the essentials of life!

In my last post, below, I outlined the genius masterplan for replacing puny shop-bought alcohol with the finest home-grown wines a man can produce. In just a few years I shall have ditched poor-quality beers and wines in favour of a world class cellar of Chateau Drooling.

And so on to the next challenge: what is the next culinary element of the current Drooling lifestyle to be replaced?

Let’s think this through logically. At the moment: go out for beers and drink far too many. In future: replace with home-grown wine. At present: stagger home from supplier of beer and fall into kebab shop for Chicken Shish Kebab to replace electrolytes cruelly removed from system by said beer.  And in future? Hmmm….

Now at present the raising of poultry to provide the above Chicken Shish is strictly forbidden by Mrs Drooling on the grounds of Bird Flu. The logical alternative would be the acquisition of a pig with which to provide the family Drooling with an endless supply of Doner meat. However if chickens are a no go then it’s just possible that the current noise around Swine Flu is likely to reduce the chances of Mrs D signing off the arrival of a large smelly porker in the garden.

And she’s also a vegetarian. And in any case we have loads of broad beans that need eating up. And she’s quite partial to a falafel. And….hey! Wait a minute!

Enough of the subtle lead in. What follows is pretty much the only recipe we’ve used for our broad beans this year. It’s a Jamie at Home recipe, with a slight tweak. While the mockney genius suggests eating these as fritters, we stick ’em in pittas with salad and slosh some tahini over them to make more of a meal. Many other sauces are just as tasty, and most of them don’t look like emulsion paint when you take a photo of them, but unfortunately it was tahini night when I had the battery in the camera.

(Don’t know why I’m beating myself up: follow the link to Jamie’s page above and you’ll see his fritters look like dog turds…..)

Broan bean falafels

300g broad beans (once podded. About 1kg in pods)

bunch of coriander, bunch of mint

1tsp cumin

1 red chili, deseeded

zest and juice of a lemon

1tbsp flour

About 1l of vegetable oil

Whizz up everything in the blender. Put the oil in pan that’s small enough to make it about 5cm deep and heat it up until it’s hot enough to deep fry. Shape the mixture into balls no bigger than golf balls and drop them in. They cook within a minute or two. Keep the first few batches warm in the oven while you do the rest.

Serve them in pittas with salad or whatever else you want. NB: make sure you get the proportions right in the recipe. I was a bit casual the other day and the falafels all disintegrated in the oil. Perfectly tasty but not quite so easy on the eye.

On the ipod while deep frying: Graham Coxon / All over me. The tahini, that is. Wasn’t paying attention.